An old lady in a country village brought up her little grandson, both of whose parents had died. She had little money and had a hard time doing it; the village were made aware of the extent of her sacrifices, and she did not have many friends. Living near by was a retired master of calligraphy, a man far advanced on the Way. He took an interest in the education of the village children, and told the old lady that her grandson was bright and should go on to a university.
When the time came he said, ‘If you and he are willing, I will give you an introduction to the head of a university in the capital whom I know well, where they have a hostel for country students.’ The grandmother told him, ‘Of course I shall be very lonely, but for the boy’s sake I agree.’ As the calligrapher sat down to his writing table, she thought, ‘Now I shall see something’, but instead of a brush he picked up an old blunt pencil stub. With a tiny knife he made a couple of cuts to take away a little of the wood but did not sharpen it. Then he took an ordinary piece of paper and scribbled something in a very loose hand which she could not read at all. He did not seal it, but put it in an envelope which he addressed carefully and clearly. He passed it over and said, ‘Show him that.’
The old lady was overcome with embarrassment; she thought, ‘How can I just show up a scribble like that, not even sealed? Anyone could have written it. The principal will probably refuse even to see me.’ But there was no help for it, so she accepted the tickets to the capital and they went. She presented the note to the secretary of the university president, who saw them at once. He was looking at the piece of paper as they went in, and after the introductions he remarked, ‘What a wonderful piece of writing! Who else could have done it? He is using a blunt pencil, and he has such control that he can vary the pressure to imitate a brush stroke. I will certainly make arrangements for a pupil recommended by him – and I should like to keep this note, which is a masterpiece.’
She was now alone during the term times, but it turned out that she was not so lonely as she had expected. More and more people began to drop in to her little house for a talk, bringing some present with them. One day one of them said, ‘Do you know why people like me call on you? In the old days you used to complain a lot and we found it rather tiring to listen to. But now you never complain, in fact you don’t say much at all. But when we go away from here, we find we have a sort of strength, a courage to face life. I am saying this only because I want to ask what made the change in you.’
The grandmother told her the story of the pencil, and said,
‘Afterwards I found that all the time I was asking myself, Why did he do it? It was like a puzzle that I couldn’t get out of my mind. He had all those brushes, and I know some of them are very rare ones which come from some place in China.
But he used that old pencil stub, and still the university president said it was a masterpiece. He asked if he could keep it, you know. I thought and thought; I was always thinking, the pencil, the pencil. And that went on quite a time.
One morning when I woke up it suddenly came to me, I am the pencil. My life is a worn-out stub, my body is dull and my mind blunt.
But with just one or two little cuts, cutting away my selfishness, the Buddha can use it to write a masterpiece. That was the thought that came then – the Buddha can write a masterpiece. Since then I have felt a strength holding me, and peace within.’